Allison Cully/the Gauntlet

Child soldiers and the ICC

The struggle for international justice enters the first round

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A Congolese warlord is being put on trial at the International Criminal Court for using children as weapons of war.

The case, which started Monday, is the first ever for the Netherlands-based court and lawmakers, and breakers, around the world are watching closely to see how effective it will be.

In 1995, the United Nations created the Ad Hoc Committee for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court in an attempt to develop a place of universal jurisdiction where perpetrators of issues of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes could be tried. The Rome Statute, the treaty it's based upon, was passed into effect in 2002, signed by 108 countries. Yet many key powers have not signed on, including China, Russia and even the United States

Thomas Lubanga, who pleaded not guilty, has been charged with recruiting and sending children under the age of 15 to fight in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's northeast.

Since 1996, conflict has raged intermittently in the country and with more than five million dead, many have labeled it Africa's World War. Lubanga and his officers are alleged to have recruited as many as 30,000 child soldiers-- some thought to be as young as nine-- between September 2002 and August 2003, telling many "their gun was father and mother and would feed and clothe them."

The young fighters were used to kill, pillage and rape, while vying for control of the vast mineral wealth of the DRC's eastern Ituri region. Young girls are reported to have been the most vulnerable, being used as sex slaves after reaching puberty.

According to the United Nations, as many as 250,000 child soldiers are currently fighting in more than a dozen countries, prompting many onlookers to hope the trial will deter future use of children as tools of war.

"This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can, and will, be prosecuted at the international level," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.

The case also marks the first time witnesses will be used in a war crimes case. Prosecutors will call several former child soldiers to the stand, representing 93 victims that will be able to apply for reparations.

While Lubanga's trial is a just start, there is a need to look into military leaders from Uganda and Rwanda that backed different Congolese rebel groups in exchange for a share of the country's rich mineral wealth. As well, other warlords-- including Bosco Ntaganda, who worked under Lubanga-- have been indicted by the ICC, yet remain able to roam free.

Perhaps even more important than the implications this case has for armies that recruit child soldiers, the outcome, and the extent to which decisions made will be implemented, will set a precedent for the international community. But for the court to be successful in prosecuting potential defendants such as Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and President al-Bashir of Sudan, key players need to show their support by signing on to the Rome Statute.